earthquake in Türkiye

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By ANSELM JAPPE*

Fast builds where security is not a first-order concern

The earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February 6 led to the death of more than 50 people. Apparently, this number is greater than the amount of Ukrainian civilians killed during the first year of the war. But such deaths run the risk of being quickly forgotten: it was a “natural catastrophe”, including “one of the greatest natural catastrophes of our times”, as Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, said. What can you do against a natural disaster? They happen, be patient. But what does “natural” mean?

Anyone who finds himself in a field or forest during an earthquake, even a powerful one, is in little danger; only landslides can pose a danger in the midst of nature. Shakes are dangerous because of human constructions – and everything depends, therefore, on the character of these constructions. This is a banal but often overlooked fact.

After the earthquake in Gölcük in 1999, due to which more than 17.000 people died, the Turkish press was unanimous in saying: “Assassins!”. That's because everyone knew that if the houses had collapsed so easily, it was because the builders had used low-quality materials – especially a concrete mixture containing too much salt, a strategy to reduce costs at the expense of the stability of the buildings. In the most recent episode, Turkish prosecutors didn't wait for fingers to be pointed at them; some fled and were turned away just before boarding planes. They knew well that they would be blamed for this catastrophe.

Anti-seismic resistance is not a privilege of concrete

But to what extent can reinforced concrete be considered the cause of the high number of victims? Throughout history, stone houses have not withstood earthquakes, which have destroyed entire cities. As far as concrete is concerned, we are facing a typically modern phenomenon: reinforced concrete constructions only really became popular after the Second World War – both in Europe and in the rest of the world. However, there are “anti-seismic” concrete constructions.

Moreover, anti-seismic resistance is not a privilege of concrete or modernity: the Incas in Peru used huge stone blocks that resisted shocks much more than the buildings of the Spanish conquerors. Today it seems to be possible to have constructions in reinforced concrete that resist shocks, as in Japan. But they are expensive. And this is where the problem lives.

It is tempting to say that the problem is not the concrete itself, but its use. However, concrete has a fatal tendency to be misused. It is a mixture of water, salt, limestone and gravel. This mixture does not exist spontaneously in nature, but is produced by man. Therefore, it is susceptible to manipulation, especially the use of excessive amounts of salt to save money. Generally, it is “reinforced”, that is, the concrete is poured into a metal structure: another temptation to save money at the expense of safety. As a result, corrosion arrives quickly, and the structure gives way.

A material that can assume the most different forms

Another disadvantage of concrete: it can assume the most different forms, but in practice it gives rise to a certain uniformity. Now, what may be good in the Netherlands is not necessarily good in Turkey, and vice versa. Pre-modern ways of building were always adapted to local contexts – and often considered possible natural catastrophes. Concrete, on the contrary, ends up imposing the same solutions everywhere. That's because it's easy to use and cheap.

And this not only brings advantages, as it leads those who hold political and economic power to sponsor, often for reasons of prestige, gigantic projects that not only monopolize a portion of the resources that could be better used (for example, in popular housing of quality), but sometimes pose real threats to local populations, such as dams and nuclear power plants.

Fast builds where security is not a first-order concern

Concrete lends itself, of course, to the frantic construction of large quantities of low-quality housing by unscrupulous companies. But it is also massively employed in the favelas by “self-builders”, who are abandoning traditional buildings, whose quality has passed the test of time, in favor of fast constructions whose safety is certainly not the first concern.

In fact, concrete buildings can be quite solid. As long as they are controlled. But in many places such controls are not effectively carried out, and their legal obligation ends up producing one more concrete negative effect: a wide market of corruption and complacency, complicity, clientelism and political careers. In Italy, the right has won several elections promising a legalization of buildings built without permission, or simply implying that it would silently tolerate the continuation of these constructions by all social classes.

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy. Author, among other books, of The autophagic society: capitalism, excess and self-destruction (Elefante).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published by the newspaper Libération.


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